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The High Price of Wasted Food

November 17, 2014

Americans throw out enough food in one day to feed the entire Seattle metro area for two weeks. As the environmental costs of that waste add up, the city takes a new approach to keep food out of the landfill.

SEATTLE --  Two hundred and ninety pounds. That’s how much food the average American wastes in a year.

For a family of four, that adds up to between $1,300 and $2,300 a year spent on food that gets thrown out. Altogether Americans throws away $165 billion in uneaten food each year.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nationwide 36 million tons of food are thrown away each year. That's the equivalent of 7,000 dump trucks worth of food --- every single day. That amount of food would be enough to feed the entire Seattle metro area for two weeks.

The environmental costs of this waste are adding up as well.

Food takes up valuable space in landfills, and once it’s there, it releases methane -- a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. One study estimates that removing food waste from the landfills would be like taking one out of every four cars off the road.

Infographic: Breaking Down Food Waste

On a global level, the climate change impacts of food waste are even more startling. According to a United Nations report, if all the methane emissions from food waste in landfills were added up and compared that to the greenhouse gas emissions of countries around the world, food waste would be the third largest greenhouse emitting country.

Of course, avoiding food waste entirely isn’t possible -- some parts of food just aren’t edible. The process of turning food waste into compost reduces the amount of methane released as food decomposes. That’s because to speed up the process many composting facilities use aerobic digestion and the byproduct of that is carbon dioxide. Yet only about 5 percent of the food thrown out in the United States gets diverted from the landfill and turned into compost.

Seattle is one of the few major U.S. cities, along with Portland, Tacoma and San Francisco, that have curbside composting programs. This allow residents to have their food waste collected separate from the rest of their garbage. But the programs haven’t solved the problem.

Libby Mills, 7, helps her mom Sara Mills in dumping the family’s food scraps into the yard waste container. Libby says, “It’s not very difficult just to put something in a bin.” Credit: Katie Campbell

Spend a morning sorting through Seattle’s trash and you’ll see lots of food. In fact, food makes up about 20 percent of the garbage, according to studies of Seattle’s waste stream.

“When you look at it in a pile, it’s a pretty small piece of the pile. But by weight, by far the largest single piece of the garbage is food,” says Dieter Eckels, of Cascadia Consulting Group, the organization hired to sort through samples what gets sent to the dump in cities across the country.

The Challenge Of Keeping Composting Clean

Just outside of Seattle, about 700 tons of organic waste is trucked on a daily basis to a composting facility called Cedar Grove. Only a fraction of that, 10-15 percent, is food. The rest is grass clippings, leaves and other yard waste.

As more Seattle area residents send their food scraps to be composted, they’re seeing an increase in the amount of food packaging materials thrown in with the food, and that’s causing problems for Cedar Grove.

“A piece of plastic, if it enters our system, it goes through the grinder and that piece of plastic is now 10 small pieces of plastic,” says Lawrence Klein, facility manager at Cedar Grove. Klein employs a variety of methods for sifting out small pieces of glass, plastic and metal. But this adds time and money. Small bits still make it through into the final bags of compost and that makes it difficult to sell.

Seattle Cracks Down On Composting

The city of Seattle’s recycling rate is 56 percent -- that’s the percentage of recyling and food scraps that get diverted from the landfill. Compared to other U.S. cities, Seattle is far ahead, diverting ten times the food waste of the rest of the country. But it’s not enough to meet the target that Seattle has set for itself, which is to divert 60 percent of its waste by 2016. In the past few years, progress toward that goal has stalled out.

“The rate we've been going the last two years would get us to our 60 percent recycling goal in about eight years,” says Tim Croll, the solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. “We really have to do something different, we can't just sit out there and root more. We have to take it a step further and have some type of consequence.”

The Seattle City Council recently voted to start cracking down. Starting in 2015, food waste and compostable paper will no longer be allowed to go in the garbage. Families who break the rules will be fined $1.

Starting in 2015, Seattle garbage collectors will monitor trash bins for organics. Residents who put food and compostable paper in the garbage will be fined $1. Credit: Katie Campbell

Garbage collectors will be tasked with identifying residents who are breaking the rules, Croll says. They will still collect the garbage with food in it, but they’ll leave a note for customers that they should expect to see a $1 fine on their next bill.

“We wanted to have the least credible enforcement approach. We’re not out there to get a bunch of money on these fees,” Croll says. It’s mean to send a message and raise awareness, he explained. And the city has proof that this approach is effective. About nine years ago, they passed similar rules for recycling and saw the rate of recycling increase in response.

The city of Seattle has also conducted surveys of residents and found that 3 out of 4 people support of these rules, Croll says.

The rules go into effect in January, but garbage collectors won’t start levying fines until July.



Made possible in part by

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

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